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Gardening : Nothing Tastes Like Home-Grown : Carrots: Home varieties are bred for flavor, while commercial ones are selected for shipping qualities, resistance to disease, strong tops.

August 08, 1993|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975.

Eating a sweet, crunchy, juicy carrot freshly pulled from the garden, and then eating a woody, often bitter, market carrot is like eating two entirely different vegetables.

If you haven't grown your own carrots, you have been missing a delightful flavor experience. And you don't even need a garden--carrots grow marvelously in a container located on a sunny patio or balcony.

Gourmet cook, gardener, cookbook author and seed company owner, Renee Shepherd won't buy a carrot from a market. There's simply no comparison she says.

Shepherd, who won an Achievement Award for Agriculture from the American Institute of Wine and Food, says that the home gardener can grow carrot varieties bred for flavor. She says that many commercial carrot varieties are selected for shipping qualities, disease-resistance and, because they are harvested mechanically, how strong their tops are.

Rob Maxwell, a carrot specialist at Petoseed's Treasure Valley Research Station in Payette, Ida., agrees that commercial carrot varieties used to be the pits--but he says they are improving. Maxwell says: "Up until six or seven years ago, commercial growers would pretty much select the toughest carrot variety they could find--ones that would survive intact the harvesting and processing procedures."

Now, however, commercial growers have the opportunity to grow commercial varieties that have improved sweetness, texture and Vitamin A content. According to Maxwell, you may have noticed that in recent years carrots at the supermarket have become darker orange in color. This is because the beta carotene, the substance that the body converts into Vitamin A, has been dramatically increased in some of the new commercial varieties.

In addition, Maxwell says that the sugar content has been increased and the levels of terpenoids (the substance that causes bitterness) have been controlled in many new commercial carrot varieties.

Perhaps if supermarkets would demand better carrots, more growers would change to these new varieties.

The home gardener, however, has by far the choicest selection of carrot varieties. When buying carrot seeds, here are a few of the best.

Nantes. An old favorite from Europe. Has a sweet, delicate flavor; seeds are available at most nurseries.

King Midas. This is Renee Shepherd's favorite carrot. Carrots are nearly coreless with fine-textured, crisp, flesh and a rich, sweet, nutty flavor; high beta carotene content.

Short n' Sweet. A short, fat little carrot that does well in heavier soils; crisp with sweet flavor.

A-Plus. Bred with special genes to make it super sweet and also to increase the beta carotene content.

Seeds for Nantes, Short n' Sweet and A-Plus should be available at local nurseries. King Midas is fairly new and will probably have to be ordered from Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018; (408) 335-6910. Catalogue $1.

Carrots are easy to grow in the garden and even easier to grow in a container. Late summer and early fall are ideal times to plant carrots in the Southland. The soil is still warm and they will mature in the cool weather (which they like) of late fall and winter.

If growing in the garden, carrots require a sunny area, and since the prime objective of carrots is the roots, they need a loose, well-draining soil; spade vigorously and add generous amounts of organic materials.

Shepherd says the greatest problem she encounters with carrots is getting them to germinate properly. According to Shepherd, it is crucial to keep the seed bed evenly moist. Shepherd says the tiny seeds cannot be allowed to dry out. She recommends spreading a piece of burlap over the seed bed and watering through it. Check the bed often and remove the burlap when the seedlings appear.

You can save the hassle of preparing the soil, weeding and other garden maintenance chores by growing your carrots in a container. I grow all of my carrots in half barrel containers. Here's how to do it.

First, buy a half-barrel-type container with at least three one-inch drainage holes drilled in the bottom. Most local nurseries and garden centers have them in stock. Put the barrel in a sunny area of your yard or patio. It's absolutely necessary that carrots receive at least six hours of sunlight a day--the more, the better. Place four bricks under the barrel to help drainage; then fill it with about 2 1/4 cubic feet of a commercial potting soil (most potting soils are sold in two-cubic-foot bags).

Next mix Osmocote time-release fertilizer (or a similar time-release fertilizer), following label directions as to amount, into the potting soil and moisten with water.

Lay the seeds on the soil surface. Then cover them with a one-eighth-inch layer of moist potting soil, and press the soil down with a trowel.

Cover the surface with a piece of burlap and sprinkle lightly (over the burlap so that it stays damp) daily. After one week, lift the burlap daily to see if the seedlings have emerged. Once most of the seedlings have emerged, remove the burlap.

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